Wednesday 3 October 2007

What is Irish Whiskey?

There are many definitions of Irish whiskey on the internet, often inaccurate or incomplete. There is, in fact, a legal definition contained in the Irish Whiskey Act, 1980.

The language is a little convoluted so I have reworded it below:
Irish whiskey must have been distilled on the island of Ireland from a mash of cereals which has been-
  1. saccharified by the diastase of malt contained therein, with or without other natural diastases,
  2. fermented by the action of yeast, and
  3. distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.8% by volume in such a way that the distillate has an aroma and flavour derived from the materials used.
Also, the spirits shall have been matured in wooden casks in warehouses on the island of Ireland for at least three years.
The Act also defines a blended Irish Whiskey as a combination of two or more distillates, each of which meets the definition of Irish whiskey above.

Some comments:
  • "saccharified by the diastase of malt" means that the starch in the grain is turned to sugar by the action of enzymes contributed by the malt component of the mash (see the earlier article on malting for more details).
  • The 94.8% alcohol by volume figure sounds odd. After all, whiskey is sold at a strength far less than this. Since the traditional pot still process cannot produce such a high concentration of alcohol, this requirement refers only to the patent still process that produces grain whiskey. I assume that the upper limit on alcoholic strength contributes to the retention of some "aroma and flavour" of the raw materials. After all, a little higher and we would just have flavourless industrial alcohol which might as well be made from potatoes or apples.
  • Since the island of Ireland comprises two distinct legal jurisdictions, this legislation was mirrored in the UK.
It is interesting to note what is not included in this definition of whiskey:
  • The number of distillations. It is commonly averred that Irish whiskey is distilled three times, while scotch is distilled twice. But Cooley distillery delights in confounding conventional wisdom and part of their trademark style is a double distillation process. It's also possible to find scotch that has been triple distilled (eg Auchentoshan).
  • The use of peated malt. Scotch whiskey is often said to use peat-dried malt, which imparts a distinctive flavour to the finished whiskey, whereas Irish whiskey does not. Again, Cooley proves otherwise by producing several peated whiskies and Scotland complements this by producing the odd unpeated malt (eg Glengoyne).
  • A definition of pot still whiskey. The 1980 act replaced the Irish Whiskey Act of 1950. This earlier act defined an Irish pot still whiskey as one solely composed of distillates from pot stills (ie no contribution from the far lighter output of a patent still, known as grain whiskey). The pure pot still style probably best represents the traditional Irish whiskey but it lost out in the financial squeeze that almost killed the industry in Ireland in the 20th century. It is cheaper to produce a blend of pot still and grain whiskey so that is the bulk of what we drink today. There are still examples of the pure pot still style available, eg Redbreast and Green Spot, but they are harder to come by and represent a tiny portion of whiskey sales. The fashion for high-end whiskies these days is "single malt" but I believe there is an opportunity for the pure pot still to make a comeback.
  • The grain used to produce Irish whiskey is not required by law to be grown in Ireland. In fact, it probably is, but I assume the distillers (who instigated the legislation) wanted to ensure they could still procure malt and grain if there was a bad harvest in Ireland. It is the same in Scotland - there is no geographical requirement on the source of the grain used to make scotch whisky.
Whiskey and the European Union

The European Union likes to standardise product descriptions to ease trade between member nations. It also provides protection to products that traditionally come from a particular geographical area so that "Champagne", for example, cannot be made anywhere in Europe apart from France. Ireland and Scotland are both part of the EU so it's no surprise that whiskey has been legislated for at EU level.

The relevant regulation (pdf) defines whiskey almost identically to the Irish legislation. It also specifies a minimum alcohol strength of 40%. "Irish Whiskey" is further protected as a geographical designation (and, intriguingly, it is stated that the term may be supplemented by the words "Pot Still").

The European Parliament revisited spirits legislation this year and the proposed update passed its first reading on June 19th.

In addition to the existing conditions, it is now permitted to add only water and caramel (for colouring) to the final product. No flavourings, sweeteners or other additives are allowed. This is entirely consistent with current practice though it's a shame the industry can't wean itself off the use of caramel.

The geographical designation remains, though the "Pot Still" qualifier has vanished.